Tom Izzo, Spartans know there's much work to do to fulfill title hopes

TULSA, Okla. – So now what?

Now that the streak remains intact? Now that they reached 20 wins? Now that they may – or may not – have played their last game with Miles Bridges?

What becomes of these Michigan State Spartans?

Tom Izzo dug in to the topic early last week, before 9-seed MSU exited the NCAA tournament with a 90-70 loss to No. 1 seed Kansas on Sunday. His young players, he said five days earlier, needed to discover what playing in March meant to the Spartans and their fans.

“We’re trying to understand what they’re going through, but you can’t accept that because the program is bigger than the coach and the player,” Izzo said. “The program stands for this – and if they’re playing in that program, we got to raise that standard quicker.”

By the time the final horn sounded on MSU’s 20-15 season, it was another game in which the young Spartans played closely with a top-flight opponent for three-fourths of the game on a major stage, only to fade late.

And it’s a lesson Izzo said afterward that was critical. The standard for next year just went up.

“All year, what I was trying to do is coach for games like this,” he said Sunday. “I wasn't coaching to win games, I don't need to win any games. I mean, that's good, but it's not – that doesn't really excite me. What excites me is getting good enough to compete in these kind of games.

“And I think we learned a little bit in those last 10 minutes, that we got some work to do in that respect.”

That work, freshman forward Nick Ward said, would start Monday. But the reality is it can’t begin in full until the Spartans know who they have coming back for sure and who new will join them.

There is no question going into next season who this team belongs to at least. The four-player freshman class of Bridges, Ward, Joshua Langford and Cassius Winston asserted their talents from the start and continued their growth through the final game. The quartet scored 52 of the Spartans’ 70 points against the Jayhawks and 57 of their 78 in the win over Miami.

“They’re really so humble and came in just wanting to win games and worked hard every day,” junior captain and starting point guard Tum Tum Nairn said. “I was with them every day in the summer, and I’ve grown real close to these guys. Blood couldn't make us any closer, all the things we went through this year.

“As far as the freshmen, man, they've grown so much. We ask a lot of them and they never back down from a challenge, and it speaks about their character and what they stand for.”

Bridges’ NBA decision could break them up, or it could galvanize MSU into a position of being a potential title contender. He is unsure of his decision and plans to meet with Izzo and his mother this week to discuss it.

“I’m really frustrated because I wouldn’t want to win a national championship with any other team,” Bridges said. “We really had a special bond.”

After injuries cost them big men Gavin Schilling and Ben Carter in the preseason for the entire year, the Spartans will be a significantly bigger team next fall even without Bridges. Schilling will return for a fifth season, while Carter is hoping the NCAA will grant him a sixth season. Signees Jaren Jackson Jr. and Xavier Tillman arrive and will have roles immediately. And MSU continues to chase both Brian Bowen and Brandon McCoy to build another super class.

Ward at 6-foot-8, Bridges at 6-7 and 6-6 Kenny Goins were the Spartans’ only players taller than 6-5 after the injuries to Schilling and Carter.

“We think about that every day,” Ward said of himself and fellow center Goins. “But that’s another motivation to work even harder. It won’t be just us two. Next year, it’ll be a lot easier because we’ll have Jaren Jackson and Xavier Tillman.”

Winston will need to continue his defensive progression. Langford will need to continue his late-season offensive rhythm. Matt McQuaid will need to continue his resurgence as a shooting threat in his junior season.

Nairn will need to continue improving his jump shot and become an even better senior leader, perhaps in a more limited role if Winston progresses. Kyle Ahrens will need to continue to get better defensively to give his outside shooting a chance to get on the court.

And then there’s Bridges, Izzo’s coachable “weirdo.” Like the other freshmen, Izzo has been hard on his “blue-collar superstar” to make him a better player. He’s responded, like his classmates.

Another year together and they could do the one thing that matters most to all of them, the one thing they all dream about.

“I have no interest – zero interest – in winning games. I have interest in winning championships,” Izzo said. “I have interest in these guys getting a chance to play on these kind of stages. That's it. That's my only goal in life and then watching them fulfill their dreams.”

Michigan State forward Miles Bridges (22) reacts on the bench during the second half of MSU's 90-70 loss to Kansas in the second round of the 2017 NCAA tournament at BOK Center on March 19, 2017 in Tulsa, Okla. (Photo: Brett Rojo, USA TODAY Sports)

Breaking down Michigan State basketball roster entering 2017-18

G Alvin Ellis, Senior

So much of what Ellis had to do for much of the year came from playing out of position, sometimes at the 4-position. Defense and toughness served as his strengths, with a few big offensive games against Minnesota and Ohio State mixed with a lot of scoring inconsistency. When Eron Harris suffered his season-ending knee injury, Ellis took over the role of starting shooting guard and as the glue guy on defense.

F Matt Van Dyk, Senior

Speaking of out-of-position players, Van Dyk found himself in a vital role after Miles Bridges’ foot injury in the middle of the season, including a four-game starting stint for the former walk-on. The offensively challenged, gritty 6-foot-5 wing matched up with 7-2 Isaac Haas against Purdue for a stretch, perhaps the visual representation of MSU’s height challenges after injuries to Gavin Schilling and Ben Carter.

G Eron Harris, Senior

Harris never developed into a consistent scoring threat in his two seasons at MSU, but he did become a valuable perimeter defender and conductor of younger players on that side of the ball. His streaky shooting produced some big games early, but his offense waned before he suffered his emotional, season-ending knee injury at Purdue. That turned him into a de facto coach and motivator for the remaining players.

C Gavin Schilling, Senior

The season ended just before it began for Schilling, who suffered a knee injury just before the team’s unveiling to fans in late October. The Spartans sorely missed the 6-9 Schilling’s ability to guard ball screens and rebound, as well as the solid screens he set on offense. He is expected to return after taking a medical redshirt.

F Ben Carter, Senior
Carter’s MSU career never began, with the UNLV grad transfer, in his first official practice, suffering a second knee injury in less than a year. The 6-9 stretch-4 will petition the NCAA for a sixth year of eligibility, which will be difficult to receive considering he sat out one year after transferring from Oregon and played past the midpoint of UNLV’s 2015-16 season before getting hurt.

G Tum Tum Nairn, Junior

No player was more of a lightning rod than Nairn, who started most of the season at point guard. The two-time captain never discovered his shot and struggled to orchestrate the offense in the halfcourt. Still, his defense and ability to push the pace in transition were essential to MSU getting to 20 wins. He needs to improve his jumper or risk losing minutes to Cassius Winston next season, despite his leadership capabilities.

G Matt McQuaid, Sophomore

After missing all last summer following double sports hernia surgery, McQuaid took most of the season to rediscover his rhythm offensively. He continued to be an up-and-down scorer and outside shooter, but McQuaid’s defensive quickness and tenacity proved better than expected coming off the injury. MSU needs him to build upon a strong finish to the season as a spot-up shooter and slasher.

F Kenny Goins, Sophomore

As much grief as Nairn got, Goins got almost as much despite being placed in perhaps the most difficult spot of any Spartan. Tom Izzo used the 6-6 former walk-on in tandem with Nick Ward at center most of the season, with his height limitations evident against bigger post players. The incoming freshmen and Schilling’s return should allow Goins to return to his 8-to-12 minutes a game at power forward next season.

G Kyle Ahrens, Sophomore

The 6-5 Ahrens got some minutes at power forward and a few at center as Izzo juggled lineups due to foul troubles in the middle of the season. He finally got a chance to settle in and play a little more at the 3, his natural position, where his spot-up shooting delivered some timely three-pointers when MSU needed them. He’ll need to show better defense to see more playing time there as a junior.

G Conner George, Freshman

The son of MSU volleyball coach Cathy George became a fan favorite in blowouts, and he has the shooting ability to see some time off the bench later in his walk-on career.

G/F Miles Bridges, Freshman

There wasn’t anything the 6-7 McDonald’s All-America couldn’t do as a rookie, leading the Spartans in points and rebounds. Bridges created off the bounce, hit from long range, facilitated for his teammates and elevated to block shots. If he leaves for the NBA draft, he could be a lottery pick. If he stays at MSU, he gives Izzo a legitimate shot at his second national title.

G Joshua Langford, Freshman

It took Langford a while to find his footing at the college level, slowed early by a hamstring injury and then struggling to adjust to the speed and athleticism at his new level. By the end of the season, the 6-5 McDonald’s All-America was creating his own shot off the dribble, starting to slash to the rim and rebound from his wing position and flashing his deadly outside shot.

F/C Nick Ward, Freshman

As much as Ward shrank his body, beginning in the summer, he grew his game just as much throughout his debut season. The 6-8 freshman started seeing double teams against Duke and continued to draw attention with his combination of bullish power and feathery touch around the basket as MSU’s only post option. His next steps will be to make a leap in defending high ball screens and to develop a 10- to 15-foot jump shot.

G Cassius Winston, Freshman

It’s not easy to be a point guard for Izzo, and the 6-0 rookie caught plenty of intense tongue-lashings from his coach for a season full of defensive issues and some lackadaisical decision-making at times. Those are areas for off-season growth. However, Winston also impressed with his play-making ability to set up his teammates, his innate feel for penetrating the paint and a better-than-anticipated outside shot.

Incoming freshmen

F/C Jaren Jackson Jr.

With all of MSU’s injuries this winter, Izzo could have used Jackson’s lean 6-10 frame that allows him to sky for rebounds and block shots. The Spartans don’t have a player on the roster right now like the McDonald’s All-America from La Lumiere School (Indiana), with his length and height on defense, as well as his ability to stretch the floor as a shooter and to drive to the basket and finish above the rim.

F/C Xavier Tillman

The Michigan Mr. Basketball runner-up arrives with a similar mold to Ward, a 6-8 big-body post player who will be working to hone his conditioning and strength. Tillman possesses a little better jumper right now than Ward and is a deft passer, which could allow for some high-low big man offense Izzo hasn’t had since Derrick Nix.

Possible newcomers

G/F Brian Bowen

The 6-7 Saginaw native, Jackson’s teammate at La Lumiere, profiles a little more like Kansas’ Josh Jackson than Bridges – a more wiry guard-like body at this point with the ability to score in a variety of ways. He is expected to choose between MSU, Arizona, Creighton, North Carolina State and Texas, with UCLA and DePaul still hovering.

C Brandon McCoy

The Spartans continue to pursue the powerful 6-11 big man from San Diego, a legitimate center who would allow Izzo all kinds of lineup flexibility he did not have this year. McCoy, ESPN’s No. 6 player nationally, also considering Arizona, Oregon, UNLV and San Diego State. He took an official visit to MSU in November.

G Greg Elliott

The late-rising, high-scoring senior from Detroit East English Village picked up an MSU offer in late January. The 6-3 shooting guard also is considering Marquette, Providence and Toledo. How many of the final three targets Izzo can take is dependent on the futures of Bridges and Carter – and the recruits picking MSU.

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